In these extraordinary days, when enormous numbers of terrifying things are happening so fast we can’t keep up, we are in need of restoration. We are in need of time and space to nourish our souls for the great work of healing the world. We are in need of time in the quiet, slow places on the living Earth, the places where we can reconnect to our Source and remember who we really are. But for how many of us is this possible? Where can we go? It is easy to lose ourselves in wonder in places where there are living waters, or ancient trees, or deep canyons, or tall mountains—but if, is is the case for so many of us, we do not live near such places, how can we recharge?
By looking in, and looking out.
By looking in I mean finding some small, ordinary thing—a leaf, a stone, a shell, a flower—and looking deeply into its interior. We can even look into our own interior—our hand, our brain, our lungs. Look into this thing and truly see it. See how it was formed. See what is happening inside it now. See what it will become. See how it is related to all other things. I once heard a minister friend, Lynn Ungar, say, “Beauty is seeing the whole in the particular.” What is the whole that is manifested in this particular thing?
Inside every leaf, photosynthesis is taking place. The leaf takes sunlight falling on its surface, and carbon and hydrogen—ancient stardust—from the atmosphere, and combines them into sugars that it then uses to build its own structure and the structure of its parent plant. Is this not a miracle? And here is another miracle: this leaf knows how to carry out photosynthesis, and what shape to grow into, and how big to get, and when and if to reproduce, and when to stop living, because its DNA tells it what to do. This particular sequence of DNA has evolved in response to interactions with other living things–with earth, air, water, and fire–in a sacred dance that has lasted eons.
The whole that is manifested in this particular thing, then, is the entire universe, from the beginning of time until this very moment. It is this way for all things: the uncurling spiral of the new fern leaf, the nest of the paper wasp, the fuzzy peach whose juice runs down our chin, the smooth pebble on the beach. In focusing our awareness on the processes going on inside some small thing, we become aware of how they are connected with the larger processes that created and sustain life: evolution, the intersecting cycles of matter, the flow of energy. We return to the very beginning of life itself, the mystery we can never fully grasp. Many theologians and particle physicists call this mystery God. In this way of thinking, the universe is the Body of God, divine love becoming manifest.
Sometimes, looking in can be intoxicating, as we marvel at the beauty and intricacy of the interdependent web of all existence, of which we are part. But other times, it can lead to greater pain than that with which we started, because we know that all this exquisite beauty, wrought over millions of years, is in danger of being destroyed forever. It can hurt too much to bear.
Then, must we look out. By looking out I mean traveling to the farthest reaches of space and time, to the beginnings and endings of all things. Human beings think we know how the universe started but we do not know, and we do not know why. If conditions at the very beginning had been only slightly different, no universe would have come into being at all. But somehow, billions of years ago, it did. And somehow, life emerged on a planet orbiting an ordinary star.
In this vast expanse of time and space, particular organisms—ourselves included—are but temporary aggregations of molecules, coalesced for the briefest moment of time. We are beautiful, but ephemeral, like raindrops, or clouds. Soon we will be gone. But life, itself, will go on. Think of how lichen grows on granite, how dandelions spring up in tiny cracks in parking lots and sidewalks. Even if a catastrophic event destroyed most life on our planet, eventually new forms of life and new ecosystems would evolve.
And then, billions of years from now, if our astronomers are correct, our sun will become a red giant and even this planet will die. The matter of planet Earth will then become available for other solar systems to use.
If we can place our small selves, our short time frame, within this larger mystery, we can find rest. We are free to wonder at the diversity and intricacy of life on earth: it seems all the more marvelous for its impermanence, for its contingency. We can use the power of our own temporary being to do all we can to preserve the conditions for life, but we do not have to solve everything all by ourselves. We have many companions. Life itself—divine love shaped into all its wondrous forms–is on our side.
So may it ever be. Amen.
- Find some small, beautiful thing—a feather, a shell, a piece of freshly picked fruit, a part of your own body–and spend ten minutes looking deeply into it. What is happening inside this thing? How was it made? How did it come to be this shape? What was its journey before it came to you? (If you don’t know, do some research on it and then return to looking in.) Journal about your experience.
- Spend ten minutes traveling in your mind to the furthest reaches of space and time, from the beginning of all things to the end of the earth. Then, locate your own small body and time frame within this larger one. Imagine your body as a cloud of molecules coalescing for a brief time and then dispersing again. Journal about your experience.
- What does the idea of the universe as the Body of God mean to you? Is this an idea that resonates for you, or not? Why, or why not?